Pink Zone more than just a game

Sean Donnelly
February 27, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - When the Lady Lions tipoff against Wisconsin on Sunday, they will be playing for more than just a game. The traditional blue and white uniforms will be swapped for pink, as the Lady Lions honor those in the fight of their lives against breast cancer.

Though the game takes place annually, the fight against breast cancer is a yearlong effort. The six beneficiaries that benefit from Pennsylvania Pink Zone are Mount Nittany Medical Center, Penn State Hersey Cancer Institute, Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition, the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, J.C. Blair Memorial Hospital and Lewistown Hospital.

Through the past eight years, the Lady Lions have raised more than $1.135 million for breast cancer research. Funds that Penn State Hershey Medical Center receive from the Pennsylvania Pink Zone go to the Lady Lion Basketball Breast Cancer Research Endowment, which supports young researchers at the Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute. 

"The endowment allows for scientists to complete the pilot research needed to test their theories in the lab," said Megan Weber, Milton S. Hershey Medical Center Associate Director of Community Fundraising and Cause Marketing. "And, if successful, move forward to apply for highly competitive, federal monies that are often only obtainable after successful pilot research has been completed."

Although this Sunday will be Weber's first Pink Zone Game, she is well aware of the impact that the event has had on the entire Penn State community.

"Pink Zone is an event that inspires," said Weber. "It inspires breast cancer survivors, along with their family and friends, to join together and continue raising awareness and funds for the fight against breast cancer. It inspires others who are currently battling breast cancer, and the entire Penn State community to stand by these individuals and show their support of finding a cure for breast cancer."

Through their donations, The PA Breast Cancer Coalition has been able to take breast cancer survivors on a trip to an annual educational conference, regardless of the survivors current financial situation.

"Nearly 1,000 survivors, educators, medical professionals, advocates and more gather to learn the latest in breast cancer research, treatment and support," said Pat Halpin-Murphy, President and Founder of the PA Breast Cancer Coalition. "It is truly an important event for survivors to attend, not only for the educational aspect, but also for the camaraderie that is created each year as new women become a part of the 'breast cancer family' of survivors."

Halpin-Murphy has seen the event grow exponentially since her involvement began in 2007. More than 700 breast cancer survivors will be honored at halftime on Sunday. It is evident that the growth of the Pennsylvania Pink Zone's momentum shows no signs of slowing down.

The PA Breast Cancer Coalition has been instrumental in publicizing the cause in their FrontLine Newsletter, which is delivered to 55,000 households and over 27,000 email contacts in their database.

Another beneficiary of the Pennsylvania Pink Zone is the J.C. Blair Memorial Hospital. Funds received by J.C. Blair were used to purchase a digital mammography system back in 2011. At the time, the machine was state-of-the-art at diagnosing and treating breast cancer at its earliest stage.

"More recently, funds have been used to support a breast health coordinator who provides a lot of outreach and education in the community about the importance of early detection of breast cancer," said Christine Gildea, Director of Marketing and Community Relations at J.C. Blair. "She also helps navigate women through the screening, diagnostic and treatment of breast cancer, providing information about community resources available to assist our breast cancer patients."

Gildea has seen the impact and growth of the entire event extend outside the Penn State community.

"Pink Zone has invited all surrounding communities to participate and to feel a part of it," said Gildea.  "We now have three high school women's basketball teams and Juniata College's women's basketball team in Huntingdon County that sponsor their own 'pink' games. We fill a bus of Huntingdon County breast cancer survivors and their families each year to attend the game."

Last year, the Bryce Jordan Center was packed with 12,585 fans, 698 of which were breast cancer survivors.

"Each year more money is raised," said Gildea. "More survivors attend the game, more spectators attend the game, more community organizations throughout the region sponsor fundraising events for the cause, and most importantly, more lives are saved because of it all."

Longtime Lady Lion fan Geri Reeve is not only a student aid coordinator here at Penn State, she is also a breast cancer survivor who has been actively involved with Pink Zone since it began nine years ago. For Reeve, it was an exciting night to be honored at halftime in the first-ever event. Before halftime, the honorees had the opportunity to talk to each other about their treatment, stage, and doctors.

"From a very small group in the beginning of Think Pink, to the name changing to the Pink Zone, and now over 800 breast cancer survivors," said Reeve. "The camaraderie is still there."

After the game, survivors and loved ones are invited to meet coaches and players to take pictures and sign autographs. It's a symbolic meeting of those who share a common goal of fighting for a cure so that someday, there will no longer have to be a Pink Zone game.

"You realize just how emotional and inspiring the event is for not only the survivors, but those that are in attendance," said Reeve.

Former head coach Rene Portland helped pioneer the first Think Pink game back on Jan. 18, 2007. The Lady Lions were the first team to wear pink uniforms during a game as part of a breast cancer awareness effort. Penn State celebrated a victory on the court, honored approximately 30 breast cancer survivors at halftime, and raised over $20,000 in support of breast cancer research.

In the summer of 2011, Pink Zone at Penn State changed their name and officially became The Pennsylvania Pink Zone. The cause outgrew the reach of Penn State women's basketball, and is now able to be supported throughout the calendar year as a nonprofit organization.

As Penn State established the Think Pink game, legendary North Carolina State head coach Kay Yow, who was also battling breast cancer, became actively involved with the event. In 2007, Yow partnered with the Women's Basketball Coaches Association and The V Foundation for Cancer Research to establish the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, a charitable organization committed to supporting cancer research and helping the underserved. Unfortunately, Coach Yow passed away in 2009 after fighting the illness for more than two decades.

"It unifies people for a common cause, and unifies Penn State with a national cause," said Susan Donohoe, who serves as the Executive Director of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. "Kay Yow has awarded over four million dollars to cancer center research, and we have been able to do that through Pennsylvania Pink Zone. We are all in this together, and play on the same team."

Since formation, the Kay Yow Cancer Fund has committed itself to raising money for all women's cancer research, along with assisting the underserved.

"It was just a coming together of people to celebrate and unify for a cause, which was so important for Coach Yow," said Donohoe, "Those 600+ women on the floor celebrating was one of the most powerful, inspirational moments I've ever had. When they turn out the lights, the visual of the 12,000 people wearing pink for a cause was just so powerful."

Head coach Coquese Washington has also been instrumental in propelling the Pink Zone event to new heights. An outspoken, strong supporter of the cause, Washington also has a law degree, which helped Pink Zone when it applied to become a nonprofit.

"Coach Washington's commitment to Coach Yow is truly something special," said Donohoe. "It's an extraordinary effort. When great people come together for a great cause, something extraordinary happens."

Coach Washington and the Lady Lions attend fundraising events and conferences year-round to support the event.

"Throughout the year, I come across so many people who make mention of the Pink Zone Game," said Washington. "They talk about being so excited for the Pink Zone game and coming out. It's a celebration. The survivors feel like they are treated like royalty. For one day, they get to embrace what being a survivor means. That's what it means for us and our program. We get an opportunity to celebrate the strength, courage and fortitude that it takes to battle cancer, and to have the opportunity to celebrate it with the survivors."

Senior Tori Waldner will be playing in her final Pink Zone game as a Lady Lion on Sunday. Waldner is excited about playing for a cause that she holds close to her, as well as seeing the sea of pink shirts and shakers.

"Now that more people know about it, we have more survivors coming," said Waldner. "It's great to see because I know some people diagnosed with breast cancer. Running out on the court at the beginning of the game, and we see some of the survivors beforehand and they high-five us. It just reminds you what the day is all about."

This Sunday, when a packed Bryce Jordan Center glows pink from thousands of Lady Lion fans waving their shakers, it will be in support of more than just a game. Win or lose, we are all on the same team in the fight for a cure. The Pennsylvania Pink Zone is leading the charge.

Last Updated February 27, 2015